Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.
Sculpture in Ancient China
Did you know that Chinese artists learned to cast metal objects thousands of years ago? Have you ever heard about a life-sized clay army of warriors? The tradition of sculpture in China goes back thousands of years. Small figural (meaning resembling something in nature, like a person or an animal) carvings have been found in burials dating back to the Stone Age. While ancient Chinese artists worked in many media, they specialized in cast metals and terra cotta (meaning baked clay).
China's earliest recorded history begins with the Shang Dynasty around the 17th century BCE. During this period, artists excelled at carving jade, which is an extremely hard precious stone that they acquired through trade with other cultures, but Shang artists became even more known for another skill. They invented sophisticated casting techniques for bronze, which is an alloy of tin and copper, and their skill developed independently of other cultures at the time. This period became known as the Great Bronze Age.
Shang Dynasty metalworkers made weapons, funerary goods, ceremonial drums, and storage vessels decorated with distinctive decorative taotie, or animal-like masks with prominent eyes and features like fangs and horns. One example of early bronze work is a cast tiger that was once part of a storage vessel, which you can see on the image below. It was created between 1200 BCE and 1050 BCE. The surface is covered with curving linear designs, and it's very recognizable as a cat. It has a sense of movement and body as it curls its tail and looks up at us.
The Terra Cotta Army
Ancient Chinese artists also made objects from terra cotta, or baked clay. Some were used for trade and others for cooking and food storage. Many pieces were created as funerary goods, and in 1974 an archaeological excavation resulted in one of the most spectacular finds of funerary art in the history of China.
In the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, who died in 210 BCE, archaeologists unearthed a terra cotta army in combat formation. Between 6,000 and 8,000 life-size statues of warriors and horses stood at the ready with weapons, armor, and harnesses all made from clay. Artists created them to help the emperor rule in the afterlife.
The army represents a monumental amount of work. Archaeologists think it took government laborers and skilled craftsmen decades to make. Each statue is made of molded clay pieces that were assembled, and then the whole figure was fired in a large kiln. They were once colorfully painted, adding to each statue's uniqueness, with distinct facial features and elaborate costumes.
Representations of Buddha
After the 1st century BCE, another figure is seen increasingly in Chinese art: the Buddha. The religion of Buddhism was known in China by the 1st century BCE, when it came from India via the Silk Road. As the religion spread, Buddha sculptures followed. By the 4th century CE, artists were making them of gold, bronze, terra cotta, stone, jade, ivory, and wood. Some representations of Buddha were massive, carved into the sides of temple-caves or grottos and tended by monks in northern China.
Here's an example of a temple-cave figure. The Leshan Giant Buddha, begun in 713 CE in Sichuan Province, is carved into the side of a mountain. Can you imagine what it would take to make something like this? It's the largest stone Buddha in the world.
So, from bronze casting, to terra cotta, to creating representations of Buddha, the accomplishments of ancient Chinese art represent traditions that span centuries.
The Chinese have made sculpture for thousands of years. Even figural carvings (meaning resembling something in nature, like a person or an animal) have been found in burials dating back to the Stone Age. In addition to using jade, an extremely hard precious stone, ancient Chinese artists from the Shang Dynasty pioneered bronze casting, making a wide range of goods for religious, funerary, and decorative purposes.
Bronze is an alloy made of tin and copper. These metalworkers would frequently use taotie, or animal-like masks with prominent eyes and features, like fangs and horns, to go along with their creations. They also worked with terra cotta, or baked clay, and created one of the world's artistic wonders: a life-sized army of terra cotta warriors. After the 1st century BCE, as Buddhism spreads into China, Buddha sculptures become popular, some of massive size and carved into the sides of mountains.
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